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Investigative journalism: not dead yet

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ONE of the more surprising responses to my writing came after an article I wrote about some slum dwellers in Baroda. I visited them during the year I held a media fellowship to write about India’s denotified, or ex-‘criminal’, tribes. Living in this Baroda slum are about a hundred families from one such tribe, the Bajanias. (In fact, the slum is called Mani Nagar Bajaniavas).

That day, these Bajanias spoke to me about their problems with the city’s municipality. In particular, about two ongoing struggles: one, to get water; two, to stop the demolition of their huts to erect flats for Baroda’s middle and upper classes. To explain all this, they gave me various papers they had saved for years.

There were dozens of water bills from the municipality, dating back 25 years. From them I learned that over that quarter of a century, the price they paid for water had risen by a factor of 120. (That’s right, 120). This, for the single municipal tap that served the entire slum, about 600 people.

Also among the papers was a judgement from the Ahmedabad High Court in a case the Bajanias filed to halt the municipal destruction of their homes. In their arguments, they had explained to the court how, some 80 years before, the then ruler of Baroda had granted this land to their tribe in thanks for the entertainment they provided at a royal wedding. Dismissing their petition, the court observed:

‘[The appellants] submitted that they are in possession [of the land] pursuant to some grant in their favour by some ruler of Baroda State. In support [of this] submission no evidence was produced before [the Court]. ...The appellants therefore do not have any claim on the land and therefore they cannot be permitted to [occupy it].’

When I returned from Baroda, I wrote an article about these slum dwellers (‘And The Tap Tells A Tale’, The Hindu, 16 January 2000) based on their papers. I tried to explain the uncertain state they lived in today, and the reasons for it: the story the papers spelled out to me.

That article brought the surprising response I mentioned. ‘A good piece of investigative journalism,’ wrote one of my readers.

Oh, I was grateful for the praise. I was also somewhat startled. Not because it was a poor effort – I thought it was a good article. But in my mind, the phrase ‘investigative journalism’ refers to sustained campaigns by intrepid reporters, doggedly pursuing leads and deep throats’ over months, then revealing to an astonished world findings that might bring down entire administrations. Of course Watergate remains the classic instance, but there have been others as well. That this person labelled my article that way was flattering. But could one report based on a few hours spent with some slum residents, together with ordinary inferences drawn from their papers, really qualify as ‘investigative’?

Maybe I’m making too much of this incident. But I have often wondered if there is a lesson somewhere in here about journalism, for journalists. This lesson: standards and public expectations have sunk so low that even the most trivially analytical article is held up as ‘investigative’.

It’s not that investigative journalism – the real thing – is dead. Not at all. The 1992 exposé of the infamous Bombay stock scam by Sucheta Dalal was a triumph of just such journalism. Meticulous checking and cross-checking of figures, steady followup reports, and a damning conclusion: the villains involved had no escape from the noose that Sucheta and others drew. (That they escaped nevertheless – in the sense that nobody was ever punished for that gigantic swindle – is a commentary on our society and law and order mechanisms, not on the investigation itself; I will return to that theme).

Similarly, there was the investigation of Enron’s doings, practically from the moment the US company came to India in the early ’90s to build a power plant in coastal Maharashtra. Various groups, activists and journalists diligently analysed every aspect of the Enron project: from the way clearances were sought and given to financial agreements to human rights issues. All through, these people were laughed at, waved off or simply ignored. Yet when Enron’s house of cards came crashing down in India, and not long after in the USA too, their analyses proved to have been spot on.

Take just one Enron feature, the price of power. When the plant began supplying power, there were wails of outrage at the price it was charging Maharashtra’s consumers. From between Rs 3 and Rs 4.25 a unit in mid-1999 (reported in the Hindustan Times, 8 July 1999) – an already high figure – it rose to Rs 7.80 a unit by the end of 2000 (Sucheta Dalal, Indian Express, 3 December 2000).

More egregious: through all this time, Tata Electric had power available for Rs 2.20 a unit. Enron, though, had an absurd contract which forced the state to buy its more expensive product instead. (Absurd, that is, from the point of view of power consumers. From where Enron stood, it was a brilliant agreement).

But this contract had been examined, and Enron’s high prices had been foreseen, if futilely. In September 1996, the Pune-based NGO Prayas did a detailed analysis of the project and concluded in its report that the most ‘likely’ scenario was that the tariff (for Enron power) would be Rs 3.45 at the (plant). According to the chief minister (then Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena party), the end user has to pay about double the (plant) tariff.

By my calculations, double Rs 3.45 is Rs 6.90. Enron power was actually selling at nearly a whole rupee more by the end of 2000. But who paid any attention to Prayas’s 1996 warnings?

Yes: without doubt, investigative journalism is alive. The stock scam, Enron, and let’s not forget the feisty little web journal, tehelka.com, that first exposed sordidness in cricket, and followed that with an exposé of far more serious sordidness in the defence supplies business. So with stories like these that inspire journalists like me in multiple ways, why the note of pessimism I began this essay with?

There are various reasons, some of which are related to each other.

One, stories like these remain few, the exception rather than the rule. Naturally I don’t mean that investigative stories should be all that fills our newspapers. But if I can think of just three prominent examples through a decade (we can, I think, safely ignore my article on Baroda water bills), that is a mere trickle. It’s not just that, in a country as filled with corruption as India is, there are plenty of scams that could stand to see the light of day. It’s also that corruption and crime flourish because the media pays too little attention, digs too infrequently and rarely deep enough.

Two, stories are hardly followed beyond one or two reports. In fact, I don’t believe enough of us journalists understand the power and necessity of following a story up, down and everywhere. We think glamour lies in the initial exposé, that our job ends there. So we have daily tales of crimes in various quarters, but rarely news about what happens to perpetrators. This is probably why so many of us complain about widespread corruption, but have a poor idea of the true extent of it, or of specifics of individual scandals. This is probably also why the corrupt flourish and steadily increase the scale of their corruption.

Three, the crimes and scandals come at us at a fearful rate. Off the top of my head, in no particular order, here are just 15 Indian outrages – in that each commanded its 15 seconds of public outrage at one time or another – over the last two decades: Bofors gun scandal. Urea scam. Fodder scam. St Kitt’s forgery case. Delhi Sikh massacre, 1984. Jain diary case. Stock scam. Gujarat violence, 2002. JJ Hospital glycerine adulteration deaths, 1986. Bombay riots, 1992-93. Bombay bomb blasts, 1993. Sukh Ram’s telecom scam. LPG allotment scam. Babri Masjid demolition case. Pickle baron bribe case.

Quite a list? But think of this: even as I write these words I remember more that I have not listed. The inevitable consequence of this abundance of crime is that public memory for what seem like momentous scandals is short. Worse, a certain ennui sets in, a fatigue with the treadmill of scams, an inability or unwillingness to recognize and feel outrage at crimes. Every journalist must battle this feeling among readers. What suffers, then, is their capability and keenness to work on investigative stories. What’s the use, I’ve heard journalists say, when our readers don’t give a damn? Stick to the soft story about the Miss India show!

Four, nobody of any consequence, and I mean nobody, is ever punished for their crimes. Maybe this is a lament heard in other parts of the world; certainly it is heard, and often, in India. I’m looking again at that list of 15 above. In not one of those cases – not a single pickle-pickin’ one – have we managed to punish a single powerful or even semi-powerful figure. In most of them, there isn’t even any kind of trial underway; if there is, it waffles along quarter-heartedly.

Take Sukh Ram. Tens of millions of rupees in illegal cash were actually found in his bedding. For weeks, he frantically resisted efforts to arrest him. Yet today, while his case meanders along in some dusty court, he remains a powerful leader in Himachal Pradesh, the cash stash forgotten. He joins hands to form governments with the very people who demanded his arrest back in 1995. In fact, in Himachal Pradesh he is a hero, revered for bringing telephone service to all. Despite the cash.

Some journalists are discouraged by this phenomenon too: not only are the guilty never punished, not only do the politically connected wink at punishment and collude to evade justice, but ordinary people show a remarkable willingness to forgive and forget crimes. What use investigative journalism?

Five, the criminals themselves prosper despite being exposed – or perhaps because they are exposed. I mentioned Sukh Ram above, and the adulation he commands in his home state. Take Bal Thackeray of the Shiv Sena party, named in innumerable press reports for his role in instigating riots in Bombay in 1992-93. Later, the Srikrishna Commission that inquired into those riots said this about him in its 1998 report:

‘[L]ike a veteran general, [Thackeray] commanded his loyal Shiv Sainiks to retaliate by organised attacks on Muslims. ...The attack on Muslims by Shiv Sainiks were mounted with military precision with lists of establishments and voters’ lists in hand.’

What could be clearer? But naturally Thackeray remains unpunished. He rode those riots into power in Maharashtra in 1995. Today, he is a revered ‘Emperor of the Hindu Heart’ (an actual title that was ‘conferred’ on him by adoring supporters), a man whom everyone from industrialists to cricketers scrape and bow to.

Take Harshad Mehta, the prime figure in the stock scam of the early 1990s. That this man was never punished was just a footnote in his career after the news of the scam broke. He became a sought after speaker, a columnist in several publications, admired and envied for his ‘success’ at ‘beating the system’: whatever the ‘system’ was, and no matter that his ‘success’ wiped out the savings of any number of far less ‘successful’ people. He had his own heavily trafficked website (harshad.com) and a Harshad Mehta Fan Club (members were promised that ‘good markets or bad, you will make money’). Writing in The Telegraph – itself a paper that carried a Mehta column – Parthasarathi Swami summed up the ‘popular refrain’ of these fawning fans: ‘Please send us some tips; email us before you post it’ (28 July 1997). Let’s understand: they didn’t want him punished, they only wanted him to share his secrets so they could benefit too.

So not only do ordinary people show a remarkable willingness to forgive and forget crimes, but there are enough of us to actually glorify crimes and those who commit them.

Six, investigators themselves face vicious reprisals. Consider what has happened, two years on, as a result of tehelka exposing the rot in the way we buy arms. The government set up an inquiry into the scandal. The Defence Minister, George Fernandes, resigned. Not long afterwards, while the inquiry that was going to establish his guilt or otherwise was still underway, he returned to office with a ringing endorsement from his prime minister. The inquiry itself came to a shuddering halt when the judge conducting it resigned. In other words, the rot remains, rotting some more.

Meanwhile, the government mounted an inquiry into tehelka.com itself, hounding its investors and driving the site out of business. This is what happens to those who expose our crimes, was the message.

But maybe worse than the backlash was that journalists with their own sympathies for those in government gloated over tehelka’s troubles. They carped about its methods and glossed over the frightful chicanery some truly intrepid reporters uncovered. One example: on hidden camera, tehelka actually caught the then BJP party president, Bangaru Laxman, accepting a bribe. The clip of him taking the cash was shown widely, over and over again, on television. Yet the columnist Arvind Lavakare explained away Laxman’s grubby grabbing like this on rediff.com (see www.rediff.com/news/2001/mar/24arvind.htm):

‘Now look at the treacherous "testimony" against Bangaru Laxman, BJP president. Although it did not, once again, prove any wrongdoing, it cast an incalculable damage on the man’s reputation. Consider that one sequence in the publicised Tehelka transcript that ran as follows:

Tehelka: Rupees or dollars?

Laxman: Dollars. You can give in dollars.’

The above ‘quote’ of Laxman was given a eight-column headline in The Asian Age, but with the exclamation mark (!) after ‘Dollars’. The observant would have wondered why, if Laxman had reportedly wanted dollars as offered by Tehelka, did he accept payment in rupees?

The mystery lies in that exclamation (!). What Laxman in all probability said was ‘Dollars??’ with an exclamation of shock in his tone, and ‘You can give dollars??’ with another exclamatory tone. But Tehelka must have just clipped away the exclamation marks in its transcripts while the audio in its tapes was just too damned garbled to reveal the exclamatory tone.

Notice that Lavakare is not trying to say Laxman did not take the money – he even acknowledges that he did (in asking why ‘did he accept payment in rupees?’). But he diverts attention from that with a feeble, though wordy, hypothesis (‘in all probability’) about exclamation marks after ‘dollars’.

In a climate like this, with all these obstacles to battle, why would any journalist seek to rake up muck? And in a climate like this, what qualifies as investigative journalism to some readers? Answer: one column based on a few hours spent with slum dwellers in Baroda.

Yet the remarkable thing is that there are still substantial investigations that happen, still diligent journalists who do them. In a climate like this, that’s what inspires me.

Dilip D’Souza

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